an interview with Jeremy Hodgson
~ “In our version, get ready to hear songs stylised as Ukrainian folklore and energetic, almost ritualistic dances. You’ll have fun and be interested even without subtitles!”
One of the most eagerly anticipated events at this year’s York International Shakespeare Festival is the Molodyy group from Kyiv, Ukraine, and their production of a Midsummer Nights Dream. A play about magic and mysticism, this play has captured the minds of countless practitioners over the years, resulting in innumerable fascinating interpretations, and this version is no exception. It’s being performed entirely in the Ukrainian language, and draws from elements of Ukrainian and Slavic culture to explore how universal Shakespeare’s work is, and how it speaks to so many different cultures. Last week I had the opportunity to interview via Q&A all cast members and some of the team, and talk about the play, what Shakespeare means to them and how theatre can survive in a time of war and turmoil.
I asked them first about their experiences with Shakespeare, and why they chose a Midsummer Night’s Dream as their play. Daaria, one of the actresses from the group, said growing up, Shakespeare gave them “the impetus to experiment with the search for a form for their production.” I found this particularly interesting, as one thing Shakespeare is most known for is his lack of stage directions, which are mostly non-existent save directions about characters entering and leaving the stage. There are certainly no extravagant descriptions of the set or the costumes, as we might expect from more contemporary plays which aim to steer the director in the direction of the vision the writer had whilst writing it. I found this an interesting and exciting reason for their early interest in Shakespeare, and this desire to explore the form of the plays and present them in really different ways definitely influences this exciting and experimental piece.
Illia Choporov, an actress and composer for the group, also spoke a bit about how Ukrainian culture influences the piece, and what to expect from watching a performance in Ukrainian. She says “it is made in such a way that a person who does not understand the language will feel it in other layers and contexts.” Although subtitles will be available for audience members, the cast believe that Shakespeare is so universal that the inability to understand every word (or any!) isn’t a hinderance to understanding the crux of the story. Furthermore, they say that not hearing the play in Shakespeare’s English further helps with the Ukrainian cultural elements of the piece, and makes it a much more immersive experience. They go on to say “In our version, get ready to hear songs stylised as Ukrainian folklore and energetic, almost ritualistic dances. You’ll have fun and be interested even without subtitles!” This immersive cultural experience will definitely interest everyone, from hard-core Shakespeare fans to people wanting to experience something slightly different from what they were taught in school, all will find this experience fascinating!
And finally, the topic of our conversation moved to the impact of the bloody and brutal illegal invasion of Ukraine, which began fully in February 2021. By this point their performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was already finished and had already won first place at the World Theatre Education Alliance 2019 International Theatre Festival in Beijing in 2019. As all around the world, Ukraine’s theatre industry halted with Covid, but saw a much more dramatic hit during the Russian invasion. But talking to this group, I got a sense of how theatre was being used to keep the resilient Ukrainian spirit alive, and how the art form was growing in spite of these terrible times. They said “During the war, the theatre became a powerful ideological weapon in the fight against aggression, an effective means of mobilizing the spiritual forces of the people to selflessly resist the enemy. In such difficult times for the country, theatres have no right not to work, because they are fighting their own struggle on the cultural front.” Although they reflect that numbers have dropped in the theatre industry, in part due to people fleeing, fighting, and not having enough spare money to go, this highlights the importance of their continued existence. At a time where one powerful, evil force is trying to erase Ukrainian individuality and identity, plays such as these highlight the importance of holding on to that identity, and refusing to let it be extinguished.
~ “In such difficult times for the country, theatres have no right not to work, because they are fighting their own struggle on the cultural front.”
This performance is one of the headline performances at this year’s festival, and after hearing from the cast it’s not hard to see why. This piece is an experimental, fascinating look at an old favourite, that aims to use Shakespeare’s universality to bridge language and cultural barriers, and help the audience see how Shakespeare can be interpreted by this culture. And, equally as importantly, this performance stands as a symbol that Ukrainian culture is important and cannot to extinguished, and that the Ukrainian Theatre industry has so much to give, and so many fascinating insights into the art of theatre.
Book your tickets now to see this incredible production and many more, here: http://yorkshakes.co.uk/gallery/programme/
And remember, you can also buy a ‘Pass it On’ ticket, which we can pass on to members of the York Refugee community who might not be able to attend otherwise.